In an election underscored by the Russia-Ukraine crisis, Hungarian President Viktor Orban of the Fidesz Party declared victory on April 3 for the governing coalition led by his party against the six-party Opposition alliance United for Hungary, as the vote count was underway.
Mr. Orban, seen as an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, secured his fourth term in a row as Prime Minister of Hungary in the closest-ever competition with an Opposition, as compared to the last three elections in which most predictions had sealed a comfortable win for the right-wing Fidesz.
Preliminary results with 98% of the national party list votes counted, indicated 53.1% votes in favour of Mr. Orban’s Fidesz, with 35% of the votes going to the United for Hungary Opposition-alliance, led by Peter Marki-Zay, a conservative politician with no party affiliation, who served as the Mayor of Hodmezovasarhely, a town in the south of Hungary.
“We won a victory so big that you can see it from the moon, and you can certainly see it from Brussels,” Mr. Orban hailed his victory while addressing Fidesz Party leaders on election night in Budapest, referencing the Brussels-headquartered European Union, with which he has frequently been at loggerheads.
At the beginning of this year, the focus of Hungarian political opponents was on issues like the economy, divisive socio-cultural matters like religion, the country’s relationship with the EU, and what the Opposition described as Mr. Orban’s withdrawal from the rule of law in Hungary.
With Russia’s incursion on Hungary’s eastern neighbour Ukraine, however, the dynamics of the electoral discourse shifted for both Fidesz and the six-party Opposition.
Mr. Orban portrayed the election as a choice between war and peace. In an election rally on Friday, he said: “This isn’t our war, we have to stay out of it.”
He has not openly condemned Russia and only supported the EU’s decision to send arms to Ukraine with the condition that Hungary will not be sending a single weapon to aid Ukraine. He has also called for continuing normal ties with Moscow, along with the oil and gas imports.
Meanwhile, the opposition alliance led by Mr. Marki-Zay has called for helping the country’s conflict-torn neighbour, supporting the line taken by the EU and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). He had also laid emphasis on disclosing his opponent’s close ties with Mr. Putin over the past decade.
Owing to the worries of the Opposition and the election watchdog in Europe — the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE —, about the integrity and fairness of the national elections, current polls were held amid external observation.
A civic initiative recruited more than 20,000 ballot counters, two of whom would be present as volunteer vote counters at each of Hungary’s 10,000 polling stations.
The OSCE, for the second time in history, sent a full-fledged election observation mission to an EU-member country, including 18 long-term observers and 200 temporary observers present on election day.
In mid-March, an OSCE interim report pointed to recent changes in the country’s electoral law, saying they were made without a proper consultative process. The changes allow voters to cast their votes in a district where they don’t reside but have a registered address, which the Opposition said would open the doors for “voter tourism”.
Viktor Orban and Fidesz
The current Hungarian election coincided with Mr. Orban holding a nationwide referendum on a controversial law targeting LGBTQ communities. This was preceded by legal action from the European Commission over the legislation. Less than half of the country’s valid voters cast their vote in this referendum. The national election was also being seen with the economic recovery lens post the pandemic. In 2020, a COVID-time emergency law was enacted by the Fidesz government, expanding the powers of the Prime Minister and penalising any form of fake news. His government also faces the threat of the European Union — under a mechanism approved in 2020 the EU could cut Hungary’s pandemic recovery funding if it does not adhere to the rule of law and core EU values.
Notably, Mr. Orban had joined Fidesz (the Federation of Young Democrats) as a young anti-Communist with a view to integrate Hungary with Europe. In the national elections of 1998, he moved the party to the centre-right ideology. He won his first term as the Prime Minister that year and pushed for Hungary’s entry into NATO. His party lost power to the Hungarian Socialist Party (MSzP) in 2002 and did not come back to power till 2010, after which Mr. Orban has not been dislodged from his position.
Enjoying a parliamentary majority, Fidesz under Mr. Orban started changing Hungary’s constitutional and judicial structure. The constitution was made more conservative, tilting towards Christian ideals, while the independence of the legal system was curtailed, according to the Council of Europe. These moves invited widespread protests at home and flak from the international community.
In the next national vote in early 2014, despite corruption allegations by Opposition parties in the Parliament, Fidesz and its coalition partner, the Christian Democratic People’s Party, secured an overwhelming win. By that time, a law targeting the advertising revenues of media and one that allowed surprise inspections of Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) had been passed.
Post elections, Mr. Orban announced that his administration would be a self-styled new form of democracy, called “illiberal” democracy. His government’s relations with the EU started getting strained over Hungary’s refusal to take in asylum seekers during the European refugee crisis in 2015, taking the stance that it was not Hungary’s problem. Hungary constructed a barbed-wire fence along its border to prevent refugees from conflict-hit states of the Middle East and Africa from getting safe passage to Europe.
Continuing its anti-immigrant and nationalist rhetoric, the Fidesz coalition won a third term in 2018.
All of Hungary’s new policies and the stand on refugees led to Fidesz’s biggest face-off in the European Parliament of the EU, where member parties voted on whether to take action against Mr. Orban for undermining democracy and violating the “common values of the EU”. Even though the majority vote was against Mr. Orban, sanctions did not follow as they would require another majority vote in the European Council.
The United for Hungary coalition
With Fidesz having a majority in the Parliament since 2010, the Opposition in Hungary realised that a single opposition party could not dislodge the nationalist Prime Minister. Signs of all opposition parties reluctantly joining hands to fight the national election against Mr. Orban had emerged in the 2018 election as well, but the proposed alliance did not come through.
This time around, six opposition parties and some activist organisations from the liberal to right-wing, formed a poll alliance. This included the Democratic Coalition, The Jobbik Party, Hungarian Socialist Party, two Greens parties, and the fairly new Momentum Movement (MM).
A liberal-conservative movement led by the face of the Opposition, Mr. Marki-Zay, and a progressive movement led by the former Mayor of Budapest, Gergely Karácsony, are also a part of the alliance.
Late last year, when the opposition parties held high-profile primaries where Hungarians voted to select the face of the alliance and its Prime Ministerial candidate, Mr. Marki-Zay, a Christian conservative and a father of seven, emerged victorious.
Mr. Marki-Zay, whose only political experience was his Mayoral stint that started in 2018, had built a strong network of activists across Hungary, called the Movement for a Hungary of Everyone.
Riding on the success in the primary, and criticising Fidesz’s policies on the judiciary, media and severed ties with the EU, the Opposition alliance was running neck-to-neck with it at the start of this year. Mr. Marki-Zay, emphasising Mr. Orban’s ties with Russia posed the election as a choice between Moscow and the West.
However, inter-party differences between older and progressive parties and the change in the election dynamic due to the Ukraine crisis led to Mr. Orban retaining a majority for his party in the National Assembly.